There's something strange about the title character of Jacqueline Winspear's deft debut novel, Maisie Dobbs, which opens in London in 1929. For a clever and resourceful young woman who has just set herself up in business as a private investigator, Maisie seems a bit too sober and much too sad. Romantic readers sensing a story-within-a-story won't be disappointed at the sensitivity and wisdom with which Maisie resolves her first professional assignment, an apparent case of marital infidelity that turns out to be a wrenching illustration of the sorrowful legacies of World War I.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Time
In Winspear's inspired debut novel, a delightful mix of mystery, war story and romance set in WWI-era England, humble housemaid Maisie Dobbs climbs convincingly up Britain's social ladder, becoming in turn a university student, a wartime nurse and ultimately a private investigator. Both na ve and savvy, Maisie remains loyal to her working-class father and many friends who help her along the way. Her first sleuthing case, which begins as a simple marital infidelity investigation, leads to a trail of war-wounded soldiers lured to a remote convalescent home in Kent from which no one seems to emerge alive. The Retreat, specializing in treating badly deformed battlefield casualties, is run by an apparently innocuous former officer who requires his patients to sign over their assets to his tightly run institution. At different points in her remarkable career, Maisie crosses paths with a military surgeon to whom she's attracted despite his disfigurement from a bomb blast at the front. A refreshing heroine, appealing secondary characters and an absorbing plot, marred only by a somewhat bizarre conclusion, make Winspear a new writer to watch.
From its dedication to the author's paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, who were both injured during World War I, to its powerful conclusion, this is a poignant and compelling story that explores war's lingering and insidious impact on its survivors. The book opens in spring 1929 as Maisie Dobbs opens an office dedicated to "discreet investigations" and traverses back and forth between her present case and the long shadows cast by World War I. What starts out as a plea by an anxious husband for Maisie to discover why his wife regularly lies about her whereabouts turns into a journey of discovery whose answers and indeed whose very questions lie in a quiet rural cemetery where many war dead are buried. In Maisie, Winspear has created a complex new investigator who, tutored by the wise Maurice Blanche, recognizes that in uncovering the actions of the body, she is accepting responsibility for the soul. British-born but now living in America, first novelist Winspear writes in simple, effective prose, capturing the post-World War I era effectively and handling human drama with compassionate sensitivity while skillfully avoiding cloying sentimentality. At the end, the reader is left yearning for more discreet investigations into the nature of what it means to feel truth. Highly recommended.—Caroline Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Canada
(Adult/High School) Maisie is 14 when her mother dies, and she must go into service to help her father make ends meet. Her prodigious intellect and the fact that she is sneaking into the manor library at night to read Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung alert Lady Rowan to the fact that she has an unusual maid. She arranges for Maisie to be tutored, and the girl ultimately qualifies for Cambridge. She goes for a year, only to be drawn by the need for nurses during the Great War. After serving a grueling few years in France and falling in love with a young doctor, Maisie puts up a shingle in 1929 as a private investigator. She is a perceptive observer of human nature, works well with all classes, and understands the motivations and demons prevalent in postwar England. Teens will be drawn in by her first big case, seemingly a simple one of infidelity, but leading to a complex examination of an almost cultlike situation. The impact of the war on the country is vividly conveyed. A strong protagonist and a lively sense of time and place carry readers along, and the details lead to further thought and understanding about the futility and horror of war, as well as a desire to hear more of Maisie. This is the beginning of a series, and a propitious one at that. —Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA
School Library Journal
A romance/investigation debut novel set firmly in the spiritual aftermath of WWI. Maisie Dobbs, recently turned private investigator in 1929 England, had been a nurse back during the war to end all wars, so she knows about wounds-both those to the body and those to the soul. It's just a month after she sets up shop that she gets her first interesting case: What initially looks like just another infidelity matter turns out to be a woman's preoccupation with a dead man, Vincent Weathershaw, in a graveyard. Flashback to Maisie's upbringing: her transition from servant class to the intellectual class when she shows interest in the works of Hume, Kierkegaard, and Jung. She doesn't really get to explore her girlhood until she makes some roughshod friends in the all-woman ambulance corps that serves in France, and she of course falls for a soldier, Simon, who writes her letters but then disappears. Now, in 1929, Maisie's investigation into Vincent Weathershaw leads her to the mysterious Retreat, run like a mix between a barracks and a monastery, where soldiers still traumatized by the war go to recover. Maisie knows that her curiosity just might get her into trouble—yet she trusts her instincts and sends an undercover assistant into the Retreat in the hopes of finding out more about Vincent. But what will happen, she worries, if one needs to retreat from the Retreat? Will she discover the mystery behind her client's wife's preoccupation with a man who spent time there? And by any chance, albeit slight, might she encounter that old lover who disappeared back in 1917 and who she worried might be dead? Winspear rarely attempts to elevate her prose past the common romance, and what might have been a journey through a strata of England between the wars is instead just simple, convenient and contrived. Prime candidate for a TV movie.
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